In 1115 a group of Augustinian canons founded a community by the River Mersey near its only crossing, known as the Runcorn Gap. They cleared the woodland, drained the land and created a moated enclosure and water courses. The site was chosen for a new priory – Norton.
(For those who missed it in a previous post – what is a priory? A priory is a monastery headed by a prior or prioress and is considered subservient to an abbey.)
The priory was endowed by its benefactor with properties and by 1195 owned eight churches, five houses, the taxes from eight mills, the rights to common land in four townships (where commoners let their animals graze) and one-tenth of the profits from the Runcorn ferry. A nice little earner. By the end of the 12th century they’d extended the church, added a new chapter house and large chapel. However, the late Middle Ages brought the Black Death and financial problems due to the declining population. Despite these difficulties the priory survived and was raised to the status of Mitred Abbey, one of only seven out of the total of nearly two hundred Augustinian monastic houses.
The abbot of a Mitred Abbey could use the pontifical insignia: the mitre, staff and ring, and give the solemn benediction when the bishop was absent. Quite an honour! However, the abbey wasn’t very well run and the abbot and prior fell out (a bit like upper and middle management having a tiff).
As with many priories, the Dissolution of the Monasteries ended the monastic life for the remaining handful of cannons at Norton. During the abbot’s absence, the commissioners arrived unannounced in 1536 and were not welcomed by the local population, who nearly rioted. The abbot didn’t help the situation by throwing a feast for the locals, complete with roasted ox. The commissioners called for military backup from the Sheriff of Cheshire and the rioters fled. The abbot was arrested and should have been executed. The growing discord between the factions of Dissolution supporters saved him and he was eventually pensioned off.
The priory and its land was sold to Sir Richard Brooke. He swept aside the buildings, with the exception of the undercroft (more on this for U) and built a Tudor manor house. This in turn was demolished in the middle of the 18th Century for a Georgian mansion – still keeping the undercroft. In 1921 the Brooke family abandoned the property (probably due to the increasing pollution from the nearby chemical industries) and the house was demolished… again. All that was left the undercroft, which had been used as a hallway.
Remarkably, the original priory foundations were uncovered during archaeological digs that still happen from time to time. Norton priory is believed to be the most extensively excavated site in Britain. The earthworks were removed to reveal plenty of tombs, which originally lay beneath the church floor. Although there is no active priory at Norton, its past has been painstakingly recovered and is now on display in a museum alongside the uncovered foundations and the resilient undercroft.
Clare Priory in Suffolk is another Augustinian house and was re-founded in the 1950s. Rather like Norton, a Tudor house was built amongst the ruins. However, this priory is still active and lived in by Augustinian Friars (not canons). These priests, who follow the Rule of St Augustine, go out amongst the community rather than live behind walls as monks. In fact, the Augustinians like to build their priories near populations so they could serve them as priests instead of hiding away in remote places.
Clare priory has a small Catholic church – a modern construction appended to the older, tinier church that was created out of the original ruins of the priory. Its very much in keeping with the earlier architecture while giving a very modern look and feel. It’s a peaceful place and provides an insight into how the monastic life influenced the location: its close to the town and castle. The diversion of the river to create a water course for the nearby mill is similar to Norton. (Norton as the first ever canal built in England running through its grounds and is still used today).
Two priories bringing history to life in different ways.